I frequently end some of my college classes with courtroom trials, and this semester I was able to incorporate this activity into both a traditional day and an evening non-traditional First Year Writing class. In both classes, held at different schools–Lehigh University and the Wescoe School of Muhlenberg College, the students conducted criminal trials of characters from Frankenstein by Mary Shelley.
From having my students perform this exercise over many years of teaching, I have found that it gives the students a dynamic path into understanding the text. By having them produce, what I name a living paper, they gain a very deep comprehension of many aspects of the book; among them are theme, motif, character development, and social critique.
I serve as the judge, while students are prosecutors, defense, characters, and, in the traditional class, jurors. Because the class size is smaller in the non-traditional class, I had various people from the Wescoe School act as jurors. To the guest jurors–thank you! You did an excellent job in judging the charges.
The traditional class was conducting their trial against the Creature, while the non-traditional class was trying Victor Frankenstein.
Both classes performed lively and informed events. In both, the prosecutors presented a list of potential criminal charges, and the defense challenged them. I made the final decision and eliminated some so that we would have a manageable number of charges to handle in a short time. These are not law classes, so the jury judged on who did the better job of making and supporting arguments not on issues of jurisprudence. I was deeply impressed with both classes and the effort they invested in their respective projects. They did excellent work, and they all seemed to enjoy the project. I am convinced that adding a creative component to a class almost always adds to students’ comprehension of the material being learned.
In both classes, the decisions on the charges were split. Both defendants were found guilty on some charges and not guilty on others. I find it interesting that in all the years I have done similar trials, there has never been one with a unanimous sweep either for the prosecution or the defense. While the verdicts were split, my opinion on my students’ work is definitive–they did an excellent job!